Re­vival hopes

Na­tion’s an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try looks to get back on track

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By XU FAN xu­fan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

In his apart­ment in down­town Shang­hai the an­i­mated-film di­rec­tor Qian Yunda care­fully takes out a folder filled with thou­sands of drafts of scripts and plans of sets for the 1983 an­i­mated movie Secrets of the Heav­enly Book.

Tens of mil­lions of Chi­nese have be­come well ac­quainted to many of the film’s long cast of char­ac­ters, but Qian be­gins reel­ing off be­hind-thescenes tales about them that few would know.

When Qian is in full flight telling these sto­ries there is no stop­ping him. In fact he takes you on a jour­ney through time in which you are given a fleet­ing in­sight into the years in which the Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try took off and thrived.

Qian, 88, was one of the ear­li­est Chi­nese an­i­ma­tors who re­ceived gov­ern­ment spon­sor­ship to study over­seas and has de­voted his life to the home­grown an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try.

For about 30 years he worked for Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio Co Ltd, the long­est-run­ning and largest stu­dio of its kind in the coun­try.

The stu­dio, which this year has been cel­e­brat­ing the 60th an­niver­sary of its found­ing, has been a pro­lific con­trib­u­tor to China’s an­i­mated movie in­dus­try, turn­ing out 500 movies and TV se­ries with a to­tal run­ning time of 40,000 min­utes and has won more than 200 awards in China and else­where.

Among those works have been highly ac­claimed clas­sics in which tra­di­tional Chi­nese art forms such as ink and wash paint­ing, pup­pet show and pa­per-cut have been used, and that has made the stu­dio a bea­con that has drawn world­wide at­ten­tion to the Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try.

As it has done that, Qian has been tightly bonded to its ups and downs like no other per­son.

Born in Jiangsu province in 1929, Qian stud­ied fine arts at the Cen­tral South Academy of Arts in Wuhan, Hubei province, from which he grad­u­ated in 1950.

In 1954 he was rec­om­mended by the celebrated painter Wu Zuoren to study an­i­ma­tion in Cze­choslo­vakia, the only such stu­dent in China that year.

Cze­choslo­vakia had clas­sics that in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese such as the an­i­mated TV se­ries The Lit­tle Mole and the live-ac­tion movie The Good Sol­dier Sch­weik.

“I knew very lit­tle about an­i­ma­tion be­fore go­ing to Cze­choslo­vakia,” Qian says.

Much to his sur­prise, by and large Czechs pre­ferred the an­i­mated film The Good Sol­dier Sch­weik to its live­ac­tion ver­sion, he says.

See­ing some of the most pop­u­lar an­i­mated pro­duc­tions, many re­lat­ing to war, Qian be­gan to be fas­ci­nated by an­i­mated works, with which he felt it was eas­ier to tell se­ri­ous sto­ries in an ul­tra­real­is­tic, up­beat way.

“The magic of an­i­ma­tion is that it can be au­di­ence-friendly and han­dle se­ri­ous sub­jects in an ap­peal­ing way,” Qian says.

Af­ter he re­turned to China in 1959 he worked for the Shang­hai stu­dio for al­most 40 years, dur­ing which time he di­rected about 10 an­i­mated short films, fea­tures and TV se­ries.

Qian says qual­ity works need to be “unique, funny and beau­ti­fully crafted” — a slo­gan the Shang­hai stu­dio has worn with pride since the 1960s — and Qian has ap­plied that rule to most of his works.

Other crit­i­cally ac­claimed an­i­mated movies of his in­clude Caoyuan Yingx­iong Xiao­jiemei (Hero sisters on the Prairie, 1965), based on a true story of two chil­dren he­roes, and Nyu Wa Patches up the Sky, in­spired by a Chi­nese myth about the ori­gin of humans.

Secrets of the Heav­enly Book, an 89-minute fea­ture about three fox spir­its steal­ing the tit­u­lar book, is one of his best known di­rec­to­rial works.

The movie was in­spired by the BBC, which co­pro­duced it with the Shang­hai stu­dio in the early 1980s. But the orig­i­nal tale writ­ten by a for­eign scriptwriter dis­ap­pointed the Chi­nese side.

“There were too many char­ac­ters from a wide range of mytholo­gies that were ul­ti­mately ir­rel­e­vant,” Qian says. “In ad­di­tion, the plot­line was very con­fused, with too many twists and turns for Chi­nese au­di­ences.”

The Shang­hai stu­dio sug­gested that Chi­nese artists re­write the tale, based on the Ming Dy­nasty (13681644) fan­tasy Pingyao Zhuan (Leg­ends of Con­quer­ing Mon­sters).

The BBC agreed but later quit the project over fi­nan­cial con­cerns.

Hav­ing al­ready taken ad­van­tage of one third of to­tal fund­ing, the Shang­hai stu­dio de­cided to fully fi­nance the movie and as­signed Qian and Wang Shuchen, an­other vet­eran an­i­ma­tor, to codi­rect the fea­ture.

Look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, Qian and the crew went to Chengde, He­bei province, where China’s largest sur­viv­ing royal gar­den and some Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1912) royal tem­ples are lo­cated. They stayed there for more than two months, in­ter­view­ing monks and sketch­ing an­cient com­plexes.

Thanks to its blend of Chi­nese cul­ture, im­pres­sive char­ac­ters and light mo­ments, Secrets of the Heav­enly Book has been hugely pop­u­lar since it pre­miered in 1983.

It has been re­broad­cast many times, and on China’s pop­u­lar film re­view­ing site Douban.com it has a rating of 9 out of 10.

But the for­tunes of Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio, most of whose pro­duc­tions were box of­fice hits un­til the 1990s, be­gan to wane as China be­gan to rapidly change about 25 years or so ago.

Li Baochuan, an an­i­ma­tion his­tory ex­pert at Hangzhou Nor­mal Univer­sity, says that the stu­dio’s ac­tiv­i­ties have slowed as it has faced a lack of di­rec­tion and a short­age of tal­ent. This is mainly be­cause since re­form and open­ing-up poli­cies were in­tro­duced in the 1970s, Chi­nese main­land en­ter­prises have been rad­i­cally over­hauled, hav­ing to at least par­tially make ends meet in­de­pen­dent of state sup­port.

“In the early days the stu­dio’s bosses and an­i­ma­tors were all top tal­ent,” Li says.

How­ever, many great an­i­ma­tors left in the late 1980s, lured by much more at­trac­tive fi­nan­cial rewards of­fered by pri­vately owned an­i­ma­tion com­pa­nies in Hong Kong or Tai­wan with of­fices in Shen­zhen.

“In Shang­hai most an­i­ma­tors were earn­ing about 300 yuan a month, whereas in Shen­zhen they were earn­ing 10 times that. In fact the best of them could earn 10,000 yuan a month.”

How­ever, the ca­reers of those who took the well-paid jobs were ham­pered be­cause most were em­ployed to do lower-end tasks.

“Western an­i­ma­tors were brought in to de­sign the roles and sets, which are the most cre­ative, sig­nif­i­cant part of an an­i­mated pro­duc­tion,” Li says.

“The Chi­nese an­i­ma­tors were hired to draw the con­tent fol­low­ing Western con­cepts. Such work is highly la­bor- and time-in­ten­sive, but it does lit­tle to im­prove your cre­ativ­ity.”

Speak­ing of the fu­ture of Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try, Qian says he be­lieves emerg­ing young tal­ent and a fo­cus on orig­i­nal­ity may bring a re­vival.

Su Da, one of the stu­dio’s fastest-ris­ing young di­rec­tors, ex­em­pli­fies his hope. Her lat­est an­i­mated fea­ture, Dear Tutu, has be­come pop­u­lar among fam­ily au­di­ences since it opened across the coun­try on July 28. The movie is a tribute to the 60th an­niver­sary of Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio.

The 90-minute movie tells of a naughty boy who wins a cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion and is based on a pop­u­lar 130-episode an­i­mated TV se­ries that has aired since 2004.

Su has spent five years polishing the sto­ries, and says she has been in­spired by her son and sup­ported by her fa­ther, Su Taixi, a Nan­jing artist who de­signed some of the 200odd char­ac­ters, she says.

Su Da, who has worked in the Shang­hai stu­dio since the mid-1990s, says she hopes to con­tinue the stu­dio’s dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tion: To high­light Chi­nese el­e­ments in the movie.

“Tutu’s tale re­flects the ev­ery­day lives of Chi­nese fam­i­lies and ex­presses Chi­nese emo­tions. With some of the de­signs in­spired from tra­di­tional art forms such as pa­per-cut and shadow pup­pet, we hope the movie has a unique aes­thetic style.”

The big­gest chal­lenge for the Chi­nese an­i­mated in­dus­try is a lack of “highly com­pe­tent hard work­ing peo­ple and a good en­vi­ron­ment for cre­ation”, she says.

Chi­nese an­i­ma­tors should look to their Hol­ly­wood coun­ter­parts as mod­els, peo­ple who are to­tally ded­i­cated to turn­ing out qual­ity works.

“An­i­ma­tion is a very time-con­sum­ing thing, and if we want to pro­duce some­thing good enough to de­velop into a fran­chise, one thing we need is pa­tience.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Qian Yunda, 88, is one of the ear­li­est Chi­nese an­i­ma­tors who has worked for Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio Co Ltd for 30 years.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Clock­wise from top left: Golden Conch; Hero sisters on the Prairie; Secrets of the Heav­enly Book; Nyu Wa Patches up the Sky; Dear Tutu; The Slovenly Boy’s Ad­ven­ture.

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